Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you–that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”
Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.
While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Are we standing on a road looking up? When Jesus talked to the disciples outside of Bethany, he promised them the Spirit, he gave them a charge to be witnesses of the Gospel in al the world, and the moment he ascended… They stood there, looking up. How long would they have stood there? How long would they have waited for Christ to come back down and “restore the Kingdom.”?
There is a popular saying in the church today that we often become,“ So heavenly minded that we can do no earthly good.” The church has always had to balance the now and the later, the Kingdom of God that is and the Kingdom of God that will be. However, in saying that we are standing on the road outside of Bethany , I do not want us to be left for a moment thinking it is bad to be waiting for Christ. If we are honest with ourselves, we can see that in the same way we can be so heavenly minded we cease to do earthly good, we also can become so worldly in our understanding that we lose the power of the ascension.
When the angels at the end of our scripture speak to the disciples, the disciples are caught up in a moment of adoration, not in idleness. They have seen Jesus miraculously taken up to be with the Father, something so holy and mysterious has just happened so that they must praise God. Luke tells this story in such a way that the ascension is directly tied to worship, “They were continuously in the temple blessing God.”
No one will say that it is sinful to worship God, and I fear that we often in our discussion of what is worship of God what is work for the Kingdom of God create an unnecessary dichotomy. When we gather together in a church and praise God, then we are not doing any less a work of the kingdom than when we feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Ranking the work of the church so that one act is better than another is not helpful. However, again, we must acknowledge that we are called to serve others, not simply to sing hymns in churches locked off to the rest of the world.
The work of the church is not just in one act, nor is one act of the church above another. What we must understand is that the church is not called to simply, “work” we are called to “witness.” To witness is the biblical sense is not just to see something, or even to report that you have seen it, but to take that information and do something with it. A biblical witness says, “This is what God has done in my life, and this is what I have done in response to that work of God.
To be a witness is not to take the work out of God’s hands, but to continue on in participating with God in God’s work in your life. It is not a testimony to a single work of God, but the eternal ongoing work of the risen Christ. To bring it directly to the scripture, it is not just watching Christ ascend, but it is worshiping the same Christ in the temple. Not just worshipping the Christ who is present at the supper, but in waiting for the Spirit to come on Pentecost.
To be a witness we must be in the temple praising God, we must be in the places we live and work testifying what God has done, but we must also follow the lead of God’s spirit beyond our words. It is fine to preach, and it good to pray, but a love that does not follow forward in righteous action will naturally burn away. In much the same way that a friend who you only ever talk about doing something with will become less and less close of a friend, a God who you only ever talk about doing work with will become a part of your life only in the past tense.
We can praise God for what God has done, we can pray that God will act in the future, but what are we doing in the now? Are we looking up to heaven expecting Christ to come back this moment – ignoring the instructions we were left with, or are we staring at the dirt thinking about what “we” have to do so that “we” can save the world? There is danger in both, and the challenge of the Christian life is to find a way to open ourselves to worshipping and praising God for what God has, is, and will be doing as well as participating in that work through our witnessing of Christ in the world. To witness Christ, we must first see Christ.
The acts of Christ are the visible works of the invisible God. When we see Christ praying in the desert, we see God’s ability to communicate and bless Godself. When we see Jesus reading the gospel in the temple, we see God’s self-revelation to us. In Christ’s ministry to the least of these, we see God’s work constantly opening the doors of the Church to more and more people.
We are meant to become more like Christ, and more like God Therefore, when we witness God, we must follow through and act in the same way. We must go and pray to God, not only when people can see, but as a personal show of love and faith to God. We must proclaim God’s work in our lives in our congregations and out into the world. We must go into the world, we must reach out to people we never thought to before and proclaim God’s work – not as people who are trying to defend God or strong arm people into faith – but as witnesses of a risen God who has done wonders in our life.
What comes out of authentic witness? We can look to any number of the Saints that have gone before us, but today let us think on the life of Stephen, the first person to witness to the coming of Christ’s kingdom through their death. It is because of people like Stephen that we today have the word, “martyr” itself a word taken directly from the Greek for “witness,” (ματυς)
Stephen came into the Church sometime after Pentecost. He was a Greek-speaking Christian, likely a Hellenistic Jew before his conversion. Stephen enters into the Biblical narrative during a dispute between the Greek and Hebrew widows. The Hebrew widows, whether by accident or design, were being overlooked in the distribution of food. The disciples were called in to weigh in on the matter, and their final decision was to appoint several workers to make sure that food was given to who it was owed without any preference to one race or another.
The Disciples understood something better than we ever could, namely that Christ’s work cannot be completed across diverse peoples unless diverse people are involved. The leaders of the church were made aware of the problems with Greek and Hebrew Christians and the ways that Greek women were being denied basic supplies, and they immediately got Greek Christians involved in the distribution of goods. Seldom can you properly do ministry for people well, but you will rarely do ministry with people poorly.
Stephen worked in the distribution of food for a time, preaching and doing wonders while he did so. We are told of Stephen’s work in preaching and miracles after we are told about his work in food ministry. Moreover, we are told that it was the sharing of goods which caused the church to grow, not the preaching or miracles alone, although the two are not easily separated.
Stephen’s preaching is what finally got him placed before the Sanhedrin. Working miracles among the people made him unpopular with the ruling class. When miracles are made the property of all people, and not just the religious elite – there will be those who push back against it. However, like any person who truly does good work in the Kingdom, when Stephen was put before the Sanhedrin, they could not find any legitimate claim against him. He is, after all, described as having, “A face like an angel.”
Stephen would later be killed for his works. The world rejects the work of God, especially when it crosses social boundaries. His death was the death of an innocent, someone who only did what the lord required. However, it was a life that showed us what it was to be a witness of Christ to the end. He did the work of the church, testified the truth of God, worshipped God in all fullness, and stood his ground even to the point of death. He witnessed Christ in resembling Christ directly from beginning to end.
The work of the church is the work of witnessing. We as a gathered people must go forward and do the complete work of our witness. Ministering to the least of these, proclaiming Christ fully alive and arisen, and testifying to the work of Christ within our lives. God is, at every step, the author of our lives, we are only the willing characters walking along that path. When we take a step, we must be confident God will catch are foot when it comes back down. We will not slip if we stay to that path, whether we suffer or face all manner of hardships, we can prevail.
Are we looking up, standing on the roads outside of Bethany? We are not. Are we counting pebbles that will erode away to nothing? We are not doing this either. We are a church testifying the work of God in the world. We are that work given motion. Let us keep our heart in heaven, our eyes toward our neighbor, and our hands constantly to the work which God has given us. – Amen.